Health Team

Sinus Infections Don't Always Need Doctor

Posted December 7, 2007 7:41 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2007 8:19 p.m. EST

That stuffy, runny nose feeling that won't go away could be a sinus infection, but new research shows that you might want to think twice before seeing a doctor.

Donna Shearer, a nurse manager at an allergy clinic, is among many with personal experience of how painful sinus infections can slow people down.

"I'm very tired. I have a lot of nasal congestion in and pain in my sinus area here," Shearer said. "I'm feeling miserable today. And I'm getting on a plane to get out of town, and I'm petrified."

Sinus infections often happen 10 to 28 days after a cold. Symptoms may include thick and discolored nasal drainage. Sufferers also feel pressure in their face. Their top teeth might hurt, and their ears feel full.

At times like those, many people go their doctor begging for an antibiotic. Commonly, "Those patients who are getting worse rather than better after a cold are put on 'antis' to treat the bacterial growth in the sinuses," Dr. Rober Fox, an allergist, said.

New research into what sinus treatments worked best, though, suggests that common approach might be off base.

Researchers divided patients into test groups. Some patients received steroid nasal sprays or antibiotics or both. They were compared with patients who toughed it out with no medicine.

"There was no major difference between those who were on antibiotics, inter-nasal steriod sprays versus a sugar pill or saline nasal spray," Fox said.

Patients might get impatient waiting for the body to cure itself, though, so doctors recommend reducing congestion symptoms with an inexpensive nasal wash. Those washes are on drug store shelves, or individuals can make their own with just a quarter tablespoon of salt and 8 ounces of water. It's an alternative to antibiotics – and helps everyone.

Using that alternative to antibiotics can help anyone, doctors say.

"We're creating resistance in the community, that there are superbugs or bacteria that are resistant to the common antibiotics," Fox said.

Patients who have severe sinusitis – documented by CT scans – do require antibiotics and possibly surgical drainage of their sinuses. People with fever, severe facial pain or recurrent sinus infections should contact their doctor.

People with chronic or recurrent sinus infections were not part of the study.